Pulp Fiction: Susan Shaw in the StudioOctober 7, 2015
Bright, red pulp splashes onto the beginnings of a sheet of paper, fresh and still wet. A nose begins to take shape, then a chin, then a neck. A silhouette of a face in profile fills the damp sheet.
In the Papermaking Studio at WSW, Studio Workspace resident Susan Shaw created approximately fifty pieces inspired by the mythology surrounding the Catskills as part of a series called Tales. Susan depicts these stories as they’re written, combines elements of multiple stories to create fuller narratives, and even creates her own stories. In Susan’s work, tales usually written on the pages of children’s books are told through the paper itself.
“I work with paper because it’s strong and fragile at the same time,” Susan says. She pushes paper to its limits, creating all of her work completely in the moment of the wet. She layers colorful, wet pulp over more colorful, wet pulp to create her characters and stories. In conjunction with her bottles of pulp used for “drawing,” Susan also works with stencils. As she pushes the excess long-fiber pulp away from her stencil, she leaves behind long strands of fiber around her jagged figure. Susan isn’t concerned with cleaning up these strands: it’s a reminder of the materiality of the work. Here, the art is not on the paper, the art is in the paper.
Susan begins her process with a shape, a silhouette, a color, a pattern—letting the paper dictate what will happen next. For one piece, Susan began shaping a profile that slowly crumbled into the face of an old woman. This collapsed face reminded her of the Witch of Claverack, whom she read about in Tall Tales of the Catskills, a major source of current inspiration. In this tale, an old woman invites men into her home to eat them, which leads the whole town to dub her a witch. To better illustrate the tale, Susan added a pig balancing on the witch’s finger to symbolize her control over the men that visited her. This sort of natural progression is common in Susan’s work.
“The work tells me what to do, I don’t tell it what to do,” Susan says. “I embrace chance and accident—you just have to with this material.”
Like the paper pulp she is working with, Susan remains fluid and flexible in her practice, a practice continually driven by the question “what if?” After attending an art program in Rome, Susan started thinking critically about the mythology surrounding Hercules and imagining a world where the hero hadn’t died young but instead grew old. This way of thinking led Susan to look at all of the tales around her in a new way: these stories, some new and some centuries-old, weren’t finished. Rather, they were open for reimagining. “In my work, I try to capture and revive our own history,” Susan says.
It seems like every little place in the Hudson Valley has a story behind it, and Susan is fascinated by all of them. In one piece, Susan marries the tales surrounding how two local landmarks got their names. The legend of Sam’s Point involves a man named Sam who survived jumping off of a cliff to avoid capture by Native Americans. Similarly, Fawn’s Leap was named after a deer that failed an attempt to cross a creek by jumping the falls. In many of her pieces, including this one, Susan blurs the distinction between animal and man, creating a universe where transformations between the two forms are normal. Men growing antlers and deer with human legs become the vocabulary of the work.
Through play and experimentation with the papermaking process, Susan creates a whole new world through paper and the imaginative history of the Catskills. She edits these tall tales—creating new endings, new characters, new possibilities—and she invites the viewer to do the same with her own work. Every culture tells stories, and despite working with tales local to the Catskills, there is a universality to Susan’s work. These stories are like language itself, and they change depending on who’s talking.
Susan Shaw lives and makes art in New York City, working primarily in papermaking and painting. She has a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Purdue University. You can see more of Susan’s work at susanshawuniverse.tumblr.com and see more images of her residency on Flickr.